Arctic sea ice record low. Can we communicate our way out of climate paralysis?

The latest figures from the NSIDC do not make happy reading. The Arctic sea ice extent averaged for October 2019 was 5.66 million square kilometers (2.19 million square miles), the lowest in the 41-year continuous satellite record.

The experts tell us this was 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) below that observed in 2012—the previous record low for the month—and 2.69 million square kilometers (1.04 million square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average.

The Arctic only gained 2.79 million square kilometers (1.08 million square miles) of ice in October 2019, compared to 3.81 million square kilometers (1.47 million square miles) in October 2012.

The thickness of the ice was also below average across the entire Arctic Ocean compared to the 1981-2010 average, according to data from PIOMAS.

So what is the world doing about it? Floods in the UK, bushfires in Australia, there are no lack of headlines relating to climate impacts – but we are still on a trajectory that will overshoot the 1.5 degree C. climate target before we know where we are.

As touched on in my last blog post, communicating climate science is becoming a science in its own right. It’s a topic that has occupied my mind repeatedly in 30+ years as an environment journalist.

(When you still “tuned in” to radio, “Man” was still p.c. and “global warming” made the front page. (Pic I.Quaile)

In my last article here on the Ice Blog I was happy to use stunning images of polar bears, provided by Polar Bears International, because the effect of climate change on their habitat which, in time, affects the whole planet, was one hundred percent appropriate.

But, Fiona Shields and the Guardian – I take your point. Given the fact that the Arctic, ice, snow, polar bears are something remote to many people and they don’t find them relevant to their everyday life and day-to-day behaviour, they are not always the best way to get people concerned about climate change and encourage them to reconsider our lifestyles.

So, yes, if we want people to understand climate change and the impacts it is having and will have in the years to come, and take action to halt global warming and the disappearance of the Arctic as we have known it, we have to give a lot of consideration to what makes people tick and what kind of stories and pictures will hit home.

Emissions – an image to provoke action or just switch off? (Tromsö, I.Quaile)

Framing and narratives

Some years ago, I met Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsö, where he was giving a presentation on what makes us take an interest in climate change issues, and why a lot of the time a lot of us just switch off. I interviewed him again recently for Living Planet and Deutsche Welle’s website about his latest book: What we think about when we try not to think about global warming. Toward a new psychology of climate action .

In denial

So why don’t we want to think about global warming? Why do we try to distract ourselves from the issue instead of taking the science on board? What is making so many people close their eyes to the impacts and the risks of a warming world, and the role of our lifestyle in the industrialized world in influencing it?

Stoknes refers to “brain challenges” when it comes to “dealing with the abstract and slow moving and invisible threat of climate change.” The concept “doesn’t really trigger our evolutionary risk lamps”, he told me. Stoknes and his colleagues have been looking into how the human brain reacts to news about climate developments. “What we find is that since it’s invisible and often described very abstractly, people distance themselves from it. (…) Unemployment, crime, immigration seem more near to me and hence I give the climate threat a lower priority than those things that feel nearer.”

So does that mean that we actually have to experience problems of climate change firsthand before we will take action, I wanted to know. That might help to break through what he calls “the distance barrier”, he replied. But even people who have been exposed to floods or hurricanes don’t necessarily want to accept the climate context. “They prefer to focus on rebuilding what they have and getting back to business as usual”, Stoknes told me. He attributes it to a kind of denial, and an unwillingness to accept threatening facts which might mean we would have to abandon our “identity” and change our lifestyles.

Food for thought? (Pic. I.Quaile, Swiss alps)

The doom barrier

Somehow, he argues, we have to get the facts across in a way where people can acknowledge without being put on the defensive. “Climate science is a threat to who we are”, says Stoknes.

“If we say the Earth is now going to hell, we’re going to a boiling Earth, a hothouse Earth … and you keep saying that – it activates a barrier we call the “doom barrier”, Stoknes explains.

 One consequence is you get tired of hearing the “gloom and doom” stories and start to avoid the messenger and the message.

“You may even want to stereotype the messenger. These are just tree huggers or green extremists or climate fanatics.”

This is something I have been experiencing first-hand at the local level, in the rural region of Germany, where I live. Both talking to people in the village, and online, in various Facebook groups, the announcement that a new “Parents4Future” group would be meeting regularly to discuss what we can do at a local level to protect climate and environment sparked off a storm of critical response. “Why not go straight to the Green Party meeting, not us? Was one. “These are eco-weirdos, getting ready to cause trouble – and I bet they still fly around the world and eat steaks…”, were amongst other reponses.

Trying to encourage local action on climate can be like coming up against an ice wall. (Pic. I.Quaile, Greenland)

Social animals

Psychologist Stoknes says this tendency to stereotype the messenger is a typical reaction by the human brain.

“We have lots of studies that show how people tend to disengage – and the reason is both fear and guilt feelings, because those are the ones that tend to be evoked by the doom framing. We feel a bit fearful then maybe guilty and then we start to shut down. Both fear and guilt are feelings that make us passive not active. You know that from psychotherapy just shaming people or making them feel guilty does not and harms the willingness to change rather than rather people start to avoid those messages and people who make them feel bad.”

Somehow, we have to get away from the “shame and blame” stuff and make it the social norm to do the climate-friendly thing, he says. That means telling stories about people in similar situations, people you can identify with and behaviour that can be part of everyday life.

Talking up the positive

“So if I see my neighbor getting solar panels or an electric car, then I will want one too. This is the domain of social norms. So if I believe most people in my city are now taking action then I would want to do so too because we are social animals. We have developed in flocks for millions of years. And when I see somebody like me do something that feels much nearer much more personal and urgent than listening to climate science speaking about ppm or the year 2100 or melting Arctic ice far away. “

As the Iceblogger, of course, I have to bring in another aspect here. It depends who you are writing for. For people who read this kind of publication, the current state of our polar ice and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere are anything but irrelevant. We writers have to know our audience. The message has to be relevant to our target group. But we also have to find ways of communicating the links between what might seem to others like remote science and everyday life.

This brings us back to the idea of “framing”.

“We also need to speak about the climate in ways that are more supportive”, says psychologist Stoknes. “We do not speak about catastrophe, about cost and sacrifice all the time but rather speak about the health benefits of low-emission lifestyles. Speak about how is safer and better for us in terms of reducing risks to do something today. And finally- all the smart opportunities of better lives. So the coolness or attractiveness of using electric bikes or the possibilities of having a smarter house that regulates its temperatures and light depending on whether we are home or not by itself or the. Benefits for jobs in terms of better insulation and renewable energy generation of local jobs all these opportunities the health benefits and the risk improvements should be emphasized at least three times as much as the threats.” Stoknes is, after all, an economist as well as a psychologist and heads up the “Center for Green Growth” in Oslo.

Ah, to be as versatile as an Arctic fox…. (Pic. I.Quaile, Svalbard)

One size does not fit all

Max Boykoff is another climate psychologist I have talked to about communicating climate change. He is the Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder (amongst his many other titles). This summer he published a book entitled “Creative (Climate) Communications”, which he descries as a handbook “to more effectively make connections through issues, people and things that everyday citizens care about. Like Stoknes, he concludes that we need different strategies to reach different audiences in different contexts. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ to communications about climate change; instead, a ‘silver buckshot’ approach is needed, he writes. We need to use creativity to discuss climate change in today’s communications environment.

The Guardian’s current strategy on images is informed by the work of the research organisation Climate Visuals , a project of “Climate Outreach”, a is a charitable company founded in 2004 to increase public understanding and awareness of climate change.

Many of their conclusions are in line with those discussed above (and are well worth a look for anybody interested in these issues). I would just like to quote one of their conclusions we haven’t gone into so far:

“Unsurprisingly, levels of concern/scepticism about climate change determined how people reacted to the images we tested. But other differences emerged too – images of ‘distant’ climate impacts produced much flatter emotional responses among those on the political right. Images depicting ‘solutions’ to climate change generated mostly positive emotions – for those on the political right, as well as those on the left.”

We all have our pre-conceptions. Finding images and stories that can help bridge the gaps between different groups to make climate change a challenge we need to face united instead of deepening the divide between factions is no mean task.

In this age of digitalisation and omnipresent social media, it is easier than ever for people to tailor their media consumption to suit what they already believe and what they want to hear. Appealing to those in your own “echo chamber” is not so hard. The question is – how can we reach the rest?

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